The 2010 Boston College Eagles football team went 7-5 and qualified for a bowl game because of one reason and one reason only – defense. A top-10 defense, they paced a team featuring the 110th-ranked offense to five consecutive wins at the end of the year, including one over Clemson. Hanging around against ranked opponents, nobody ever discounted a BC team that, at one point, was 2-5 with all losses coming consecutively. They simply weren’t blown out by other teams.
That changed last year. There was the marquee loss of Mark Herzlich, but BC lost more than just one player. They graduated key players, then compounded it by losing starters who would otherwise be entering their collegiate prime. The end result meant the secondary would start freshmen, the defensive line would start inexperienced players, and the linebacking corps would be a number of young guys with junior superstar Luke Kuechly.
The best case scenario saw Kuechly spearhead an attack that matured the young guys quickly. Most players would, in that regard, play over their talent, and the defense, which historically was solid when Frank Spaziani was their coordinator, would continue to play at a nationally-ranked high level. The worst case was that the young guys gave up yards and ground, Kuechly couldn’t stop everyone by himself, and after getting torched for 12 games, he’d leave early as the only bright spot in the unit.
The team went 4-8. You do the math of what happened.
Boston College saw strong efforts neutralized by injury and poor play. The young guys made freshman mistakes, and although they looked good towards the end of the season, they got lit up for long swathes of play. Central Florida put up 34 points in the season’s second week, and Duke quarterback Sean Renfree completed a school-record 41 yards to put BC to an 0-3 record. 33 takeaways became 16, and the low-point, like for the offense, came when they were completely embarrassed on national television by Florida State. When the season ended, Kuechly declared for the NFL Draft, and the unit’s best player (possibly best all-time tackler in the program’s history) left an indelible mark and sizeable void for the team to pick up this year.
Boston College’s pass defense is a two-fold approach. It starts with the defensive line getting pressure on the quarterback to force bad throws into a swarm of Eagle jerseys. Linebackers don’t so much blitz as they do play zone style coverage, providing downfield help for the secondary. This allows the safeties the freedom to ball-hawk. It’s almost a Cover-2 style defense, except the Cover-2 requires the linebackers to go downfield in a true zone, while the safeties cover deep. Nobody in the Cover-2 actually plays a full-on man-to-man.
BC employs a man-to-man pass defense, but last year, it was completely exposed. The secondary normally plays off the wide receivers at the line to force them to move towards a player. If the receiver goes up-field at all, the cornerback will go with him, but if he breaks off towards the inside, there’s a switch off to the linebacker. It’s a defense that works on creativity and communication. Unfortunately for BC, they had neither last year.
Fearing receivers’ speed, the corners played off, exposing the short and intermediate passing routes because the linebackers couldn’t switch over in time. Once injury conspired against some of the corners, the linebackers started lining up against slot receivers, which was fine when Herzlich was in coverage in 2010 but not fine when some of the young, inexperienced guys were in there in 2011. Compounding the issue was the lack of a quality pass rush, as veterans like Kaleb Ramsay spent too much time injured, resulting in a very young rush that couldn’t get pressure.
So for the passing defense this year, the unit needs to return to 2010 form. Losing Kuechly, who could tackle anybody, will force the linebackers to communicate more and work together as a unit. That could be a positive after last year, when everyone just relied on #44 to make the key tackle (even though he often did). Plus it’s another year and a maturing body for guys like Kevin Pierre-Louis, who is slowly morphing into the next great BC linebacker. He’ll be joined by Steele Devitto, who had moments last year, especially in blitz packages, and others. Since everyone returns on the defensive line as well, the front seven should start to make a jump. It doesn’t mean they’ll dominate like they did two years ago, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t improve from a year ago. Sean Duggan could also be that coverage linebacker they desperately need.
The secondary, however, remains a concern. Al Louis-Jean is injured to start the season, which means there’ll be more inexperienced guys getting trialed by fire in the defensive backfield. The coaching staff needs to figure out if Jim Noel is a safety or a corner and keep him in one place, since last year he kept switching off, hindering the development of anyone else at either position, and that’s saying something since there really wasn’t anybody left at that point. And someone else will need to step up in coverage, whether it’s Hampton Hughes or Sean Sylvia. The cupboard is still pretty bare, so unless a linebacker becomes a nickelback like Herzlich did in ’10, there’s always going to be some receiver open for a major threat.
Opponents averaged nearly 4.5 yards per carry against a BC defensive line missing key parts for most of the year. They gave up 20 rushing touchdowns and on 37 occasions, their opponent went into the red zone and scored, an efficiency of over 80%.
These signs point to a huge lapse in the Eagles’ ability to stop the run. After a 2010 season where they gave up less than three yards per carry, the loss up the middle of defensive linemen and linebackers was too much to overcome. The injuries compounded everything, and it allowed opposing offensive lines to gash holes in the Boston College front four.
In the BC defense, the defensive line is the unit that, realistically, needs to stop the run. One linebacker is almost always going to be in pass coverage, meaning the front seven is more or less a front six. One LB could be blitzing, but for the most part, they hang back between the first and second level to avoid having someone run right by them. With Kuechly in the mix, that stopped the potential for the massive breakout rush. But it didn’t solve the fact that the running backs almost always got to him in the first place.
Of the returnees, Dominic Appiah will need to provide the biggest spark. He was third on the team in tackles for loss last year as a freshman, and he’ll need to grow up very fast to anchor a defensive line that, quite honestly, will be playing for their coach’s hide over the first couple of weeks. Still, BC forever goes through peaks and valleys when it comes to their lineman, and this is one of those valleys right now. It’s unfortunate since it’s coming a time when everything is valleying, but it’s one of those scenarios where they can’t cry over it and instead need to get behind a team desperately in need of some unit leadership.
Still, the rushing defense will also need to overcome the loss of Kuechly, who pretty much could do everything. They’ll need to band together as a unit and divide up what he used to do on his own. It’s almost like a Moneyball theory, since BC won’t replace Kuechly with one guy as they will with the unit. Eleven players will need to divvy up what the one man did, and they’ll need to do it quickly starting with a pesky Miami team they’ve played well against the last few years.
Defensive special teams is a lost artform. The only team that really prides itself on rushing punts or kicks anymore is Virginia Tech with “Beamerball,” and Boston College could use a break by getting to the punter more often. Opponents went 22-25 in kicking field goals and didn’t miss an extra point. On the bright side, only once was a kick returned for a touchdown at all last year, and that came against UMass when Jesse Julmiste went the length of the field. They were able to hold opposing offenses to 40% of fourth down conversions, and overall, the special teams benefitted from the fact that the defense was good but not great. Still, a blocked punt wouldn’t be a bad thing every now and again.